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Milt Northrop’s Playbook: As usual, quarterbacks own the spotlight on the postseason stage

The media treats NFL quarterbacks like pitchers in baseball. The only thing missing are earned-run averages, quality starts, holds, saves and pitch counts.

Football is more complicated than that, but it’s easier to turn a game into Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning or Carson Palmer versus Cam Newton. So those are the storylines being followed by most in Sunday’s conference championship games.

It’s as if nobody else matters in the outcome of the game unless they are unfortunate enough to lose a fumble, as Fitzgerald Toussaint of the Steelers did, or miss a clutch field goal, as Blair Walsh of the Vikings did.

However, it’s hard to resist the drama of four-time Super Bowl winner Brady going against Manning, who may be playing his last game.

Or a rejuvenated Palmer facing the flamboyant Newton.

So, we might as well as sit back and enjoy it.

Here’s a capsule look at Sunday’s NFC and AFC championship games:

Patriots (13-4) at Broncos (13-4)

TV: CBS, 3:05 p.m.

The line: Patriots (-3½)

The scoop on the Patriots: Kansas City coach Andy Reid goofed against New England long before that lame end-of-game slow-down by the Chiefs. KC won the coin toss and Reid elected to defer. Bad choice if you consider this: Three New England regular season opponents won the coin toss and kicked off. All three found themselves behind 7-0 before they even touched the football. Same with the Chiefs. The Patriots scored on their first possession 10 times in 17 games. New England won the coin toss 10 times and deferred all 10 times. The Bills and Colts were the only teams to score on New England on their first possession. … Injury problems on the Patriots offensive line are well documented. They rotated nine players in the five positions during the course of the season and used the same five in the same positions two games in a row only once. Sunday, it’s expected the unit that started against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round will start again at Denver. … Pats led, 21-7, with 14:50 to play at Denver in their regular season meeting. Then they let the Broncos drive 52 yards for a field goal and 36 and 83 yards for touchdowns. New England tied the game at 24 on Stephen Gostkowski’s 47-yard field goal on final play of regulation but gave up a 48-yard touchdown run by CJ Anderson after only 2:28 of overtime. New England went three-and-out on its first series in OT. … Tom Brady passed for three TDs, was not intercepted and was sacked three times in that game. His longest completion was for 63 yards to journeyman RB back Brandon Bolden to make it 21-7. Sound familiar, Bills fans? New England had virtually no running game, gaining only 39 yards on 16 attempts (2.4 average) with the longest gain 9 yards. New England was missing WRs Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and LB Jamie Collins.

The scoop on the Broncos: Denver mauled the New England defense on the ground in the regular-season game. The Broncos ran for 179 yards in 32 attempts (5.6 average) and scored three rushing touchdowns. Peyton Manning had horrid statistics in the regular season, 17 interceptions and a 67.9 passer rating that easily was the worst in the league among QBs who had enough games to qualify. … Brock Osweiler, not Peyton Manning, was Denver’s quarterback in that game. He passed for 270 yards with one TD pass and one INT. Emmanuel Sanders had six catches for 113 yards and 18.8 average. DeMaryius Thomas was targeted 13 times by Osweiler. He had only one catch for 36 yards. Overall, Denver outgained New England, 433-301. … Brandon McManus missed a 47-yard FG try against the Pats, one of only five he missed in the regular season. ... Some consider the Broncos’ secondary of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr., T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart the NFL’s best. Brady and the Patriots went three-and-out six times in 15 possessions in their Week 12 meeting. The Denver pass defense had 52 sacks, 14 interceptions and allowed 19 passing touchdowns in the regular season while Brady threw only seven interceptions and was sacked 38 times. Thirty-six of New England’s 50 offensive touchdowns were on passing plays. … Ed Hochuli will be Sunday’s referee.

Outlook: Brady is great but he has stumbled before in Mile High City (2-6 all games, 0-2 in playoffs). Unless Denver gets in a deep hole, Manning should be able to manage his way around his weaknesses. Given strength of Denver defense and home-field advantage, hard to see why Patriots are favored. Broncos, 27-24.

Cardinals (14-3) at Panthers (16-1)

TV: FOX, 6:40 p.m.

The line: Panthers (-3)

The scoop on the Cardinals: The one imponderable for Arizona is quarterback Carson Palmer. He had a brilliant regular season after missing the last 10 games of 2014 with injury. He passed for 35 touchdowns with 11 interceptions and averaged 8.7 yards per attempt, which was the best among the 12 playoff quarterbacks. He completed 63.7 percent and his TD passes were divided almost evenly among three RBs, TE Darren Fells and rookie RB David Johnson. However, Palmer’s postseason résumé is scary. He is 1-2 and was real shaky in the win over Green Bay last Sunday. Coach Bruce Arians, who has led the teams to the playoffs the last three seasons, is credited for reviving Palmer’s career, and his clever use of Larry Fitzgerald has coaxed a career year out of the veteran wide receiver. Fitzgerald has 109 receptions for 1,215 yards and nine TDs in the regular season, and, of course, made the big play to set up the winning touchdown he scored in overtime against Green Bay in the divisional round. ... Chris Johnson (injured) led the Cardinals with 814 rushing yards, but the rookie Johnson has been featured more lately. He had 581 rushing yards, another 457 receiving and scored 12 touchdowns overall. … Arizona led the league in total offense (408.3) and was second only to Carolina in scoring (500-489). The defense ranked second in the NFC − Carolina was third − led by Pro Bowl DE Calais Campbell and CB Patrick Peterson. … Ted Ginn Jr., the Cardinals’ return man in 2014, runs back punts for the Panthers and is used more as a receiver with Carolina than with the Cardinals. … Arizona went 7-1 on the road (6-2 at home). However, Carolina has not lost a home game in more than a year and that was a 19-17 loss to Atlanta on Nov. 16, 2014.

The scoop on the Panthers: Carolina won three straight NFC South titles since Dave Gettleman became general manager of the team in January 2013. No accident.

He broke into the NFL as an intern, then full-time scout with the Bills before joining the BLESTO combine in 1992. He has been a shrewd drafter, talent evaluator, creative trader and courageous executive. His drafts include DT Star Lotulelei and DT Kawann Short in 2013, and LB Shaq Thompson (2015); he traded for TE Greg Olsen in 2013 and DE Jared Allen (2015). The Carolina offensive line is made up of four players acquired as free agents in the last two seasons and center Ryan Kalil, a 2007 draftee. Gettleman also cut loose favorites WR Steven Smith and RB DeAngelo Williams. He can’t take credit for QB Cam Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, but he certainly has helped provide fifth-year head coach Ron Rivera with as solid and well-balanced a roster there is in the NFL. … The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton gives Carolina a unique weapon. He’s a pocket passer, a great improviser and a ball-carrying threat. He passed for 3,837 yards and ran for 636 more in the regular season. It’s almost certain he will be named the league’s most valuable player for 2015. … Carolina led the league with a plus-20 turnover margin. Safety Kurt Coleman, who was signed as a restricted free agent from the Chiefs, tied for the NFC lead with seven interceptions. Carolina was plus-11 (44-33) in sack differential led by Short’s 11. … Allen has been ruled “out” with a foot fracture although he wanted to play … Bill Vinovich, who had last year’s Super Bowl, will be the referee.

Outlook: The Panthers can get careless with a big lead, as they did against the Giants and last week against the Seahawks. They are not a team built on speed, but they can more than match muscle with anybody and almost certainly will keep the serious heat on Palmer. Carolina, 30-21.

Last week’s results: 3-1 straight up; 2-2 versus spread.

Season’s record: 152-91 straight up; 126-112-5 versus spread.


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